Improve your reading comprehension

Many people dislike reading but let’s face it, most courses we take will require us to go through lengthy textbooks, lists of academic papers, research, etc. This means that we will spend a good chunk of our study time reading. So, it is important to know how to extract key information in our readings.

There are several key activities that improve our reading comprehension (Weiten & McCann, 2012):

1) Preview reading assignments section by section

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Before starting reading the assigned chapter, preview any high-level headings provided. They may appear in many forms depending on the author’s style, i.e. learning objectives or chapter outline, and are usually found at the beginning of each chapter summarizing what a student should know after finishing the readings.

This habit helps create an information structure in our heads to put the details into. It also  improves the encoding of information by aiding with recognition of important points in the chapter (Marsh & Butler, 2013).

It is much easier to sort new information into an outlined informational structure rather than creating a new one from scratch. Consider these two scenarios:

  • Peter wants to learn how to play basketball. He has never heard of what a ball is. Peter is eager to play, so he decides to start playing right away and figure it out as he goes. He spends the first three hours looking at and throwing that weird sphere around, trying to figure out how it works. Peter then learns that a ball is somewhat hard, it can be thrown, and it bounces off things (oh wait, after another half an hour, Peter decides that ball only bounces well off hard surfaces). He feels exhausted after three hours of discovering physics and calls it a day. On the next day, Peter finally gets to learning how to bounce a ball across the basketball court.
  • Tanya wants to learn how to play basketball. She has never heard of what a ball is either and decides to read an overview of basketball basics, which included key points about that weird sphere called “ball”. In a couple of minutes, Tanya learns that a ball is hard, it can be thrown, and it bounces off hard surfaces. Tanya isn’t completely sure of how it works but starts practicing bouncing it across the court right away. 

We can see that Tanya had a much easier time learning the basics of basketball and did it much faster than Peter. No surprise there, Peter had to learn how a ball works without any external help. 

When reading these two scenarios one might think: “How on earth could Peter not know what a ball is?” or “This is so obvious, of course Peter should have looked at how a ball works first!”. 

In reality, these scenarios are very similar to our own stories. Many of us, when starting reading a new chapter, skip learning objectives to dive into that new theory, framework or model right away. We might never have been exposed to some ideas before and might get lost at first, so knowing the basic structure that a framework relies on will save us time trying to figure it out on our own. This  allows us to sort important new information into existing information structures.

2) Work hard to actively process the meaning of the information

To help further visualize this process, imagine our brains as being an office. There are a lot of file cabinets to organize information for better accessibility and different ways of encoding information (memorizing): 

  1. Neatly putting pieces of information into selected drawers in a file cabinet (Tanya organizing information about a ball)
  2. Creating a file cabinet ourselves by try and error approach, which might or might not be correct, and then sorting information into different drawers (Peter figuring out how a ball works)
  3. Dumping all the paperwork (information) on the floor and hoping it sorts itself out

My absolute favourite image that comes to mind when I think about the latter is the scene from Spongebob showing the inside of his brain. Lots of mini Spongebobs (his brain cells) were writing down and sorting information he learnt; however, Spongebob got overwhelmed and glitched. So, mini Spongebobs started panicking and throwing all the paperwork around. 

This state of chaos happens when we mindlessly read material without thinking about what cabinets (structures) we are putting our newly learnt information into. It is important to actively process the meaning of the information because otherwise we dump it on the floor of our brain and are rarely able to retrieve it for it is a mess.

3) Strive to identify the key ideas of each paragraph

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Most textbooks are written in a way that each paragraph has a reason to be there. Every paragraph has a purpose. Find or construct a sentence or two that explains that purpose best. 

Side note for those who love highlighting excessively: Dunlosky, et al. found in his 2013 study that highlighting produces limited value, while later reviews note that the skill with which highlighting is executed matters. Mindlessly running our highlighters across a page won’t help us learn better. However, being selective with what we highlight will bring us closer to this goal. 

Some helpful questions to ask ourselves when reading: “Why did the author give us this information?”, “What does the author want us to know?”. One can be surprised how much insight those considerations can give us.

4) Carefully review the key ideas after each section 

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Our short-term memory has a limited capacity and can maintain unrehearsed information for up to 20 seconds (Weiten & McCann, 2012). Rehearsal process itself is the process of repetitively thinking about the information (Weiten & McCann, 2012). According to Arkinson and Shiffrin model of memory storage (1971), we need to actively engage with and solidify information if we want it to stick with us.

Therefore, review your notes, highlights or chapter summaries. If your textbook has any graphic organizers such as graphs or concept charts at the end of a chapter, this is a great opportunity to solidify your memory with the review. (Nist & Holschuh,2000) 

In summary, knowing how to extract key information in our readings is important to academic success. It’s not enough to just be smart (although it definitely helps), we need to develop good study habits too. It is very rare that we read about something and master it right away, it usually requires practice. Luckily, such tasks as reading textbooks, writing papers, completing assignments, and taking exams get easier with more practice!


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Wllingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58. doi:10.1177/1529100612453266

Marsh, J.M., & Buttler, A. C. (2013). Memory in educational settings, In D. Reisberg (Ed.), Oxford handbook of cognitive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Nist, S. L., & Holschuh, J.L. (200). Comprehension strategies at the college level. In R.F. Flippo & D. C. Caverly (Eds.), Handbook of college reading and strategy research. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbraum.

Weiten and McCann (2012). Psychology: Themes and Variations. Cengage Learning.

Hi, I’m Alona! I’m open, compassionate, and love adventures. Welcome to StudyTips, a place where I share knowledge from years of experience, studying, and hard work.

It is possible to do well in school and have fulfilling balanced lives. I learnt it the hard way but hope you won’t have to. Studying more is not always better, the trick is to know how to do it well.

Here you can find tips, concepts, and techniques based on various psychology principles that I wish I knew in my first years of university.


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